U.S. may relax rules for automakers installing seat belt devices

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WASHINGTON (Bloomberg) -- U.S. regulators may relax some auto-safety requirements on manufacturers that voluntarily install technology preventing cars from starting unless occupants are wearing seat belts.

Cars featuring interlock devices would be given relief on strict U.S. design requirements to prevent injuries to unbelted passengers, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief David Strickland said in a call with reporters today.

"There are lots of reasons a manufacturer would find it advantageous to go the voluntary route," Strickland said.

Seat belt interlock technology has been around for decades. An earlier attempt to mandate the systems, in the 1970s, was so unpopular that a law was passed banning their installation. A surface transportation law passed last year is allowing NHTSA to consider allowing vehicle manufacturers to count interlocks toward satisfying crash-test requirements, the agency said in a statement today.

NHTSA is looking at ways to make the systems tamper-proof and reliable. If there were a way to guarantee that all people in the car were wearing seat belts, automakers might be able to remove some structural steel, Strickland said. That would help the industry in other ways, such as improving fuel economy.

Automakers have expressed a lot of interest in the idea, Strickland said. The car redesigns wouldn't result in a lower degree of safety, he said. "We have all the confidence that there won't be backsliding," Strickland said. "I feel very bullish about the engineering on this."

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